Your Luxury is My Lifeline: Standing up for Transit in a Driving City

I was shocked when I saw it, buried unceremoniously at the bottom of a news brief where the less important stories end up. My city is considering shutting down transit altogether, for the entire summer, to offset the economic impact of COVID-19. It was later clarifiedthat this is not the only or most likely scenario, but it still hasn’t been taken off the table. Unless aid is forthcoming, the next few months will be long ones for people like me, who are medically unable to drive, and who have no affordable way to get around in a city that was never designed to be walkable outside the downtown core. The article acknowledged the transit worker jobs that are on the line or already lost, but as far as I could tell, no one was doing much advocacy for transit riders themselves.

No service reductions, no Saturday schedules or fare increases. Just a total, blanket shutdown. And paratransit, a specialized service for disabled passengers who can’t always use conventional transit, wasn’t even mentioned.

As a series of motorcycles and extraordinarily loud sports cars roared past my home office window, gleefully proclaiming their ability to go where they please, when they please, pandemic or no pandemic, my stomach dropped to my shoes.

You see, I get it. The service is reportedly losing millions every month. Ridership is down, since far fewer people are going out to work and run errands, though that is bound to change as the economic relaunch progresses. Transit in my area wasn’t in great shape before this crisis, and now it’s on life support, in a ‘driving city’ with what I’d personally characterize as an anti-pedestrian and anti-transit culture.

So on the face of it, the strategy makes sense. Shut down transit during the warmer months, so that when winter comes and walking long distances becomes impractical and unsafe, there will be money to restart the service. It’s not ideal, but if the money’s not there, then it isn’t.

But if this sensible strategy goes ahead, there will be a lot of quiet collateral damage that few seem prepared to acknowledge.

If you live in Edmonton and are unable, financially or medically, to drive, you’d better hope you live within walking distance of your job, or have plenty of disposable income. Short of working from home until the fall or longer, there are a lot of expensive cab rides in your future.

If you were planning to job-search this summer, you’d better hope you have enough savings to afford the cab rides you’ll be taking to interviews, or the mobility to walk across this sprawling city to get to them.

If you are experiencing homelessness, you’d better hope you can walk or find a ride to access the supports and services on which you depend.

If you are disabled and can’t walk/bike/carpool your way around town, you’d better hope paratransit keeps running. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

If you live outside the city, and you need to visit it for work or school, you’d better hope transit services in other communities keep running.

And if you live in Edmonton and are able to drive, you’d better hope you can continue to afford fuel, repairs, maintenance, parking, insurance, registration and all the other associated costs, because there won’t be a bus or train to fall back on.

I don’t have answers. I’m not an economist, strategist or urban planning expert. I don’t know the best ways to keep transit services afloat when ridership is low and revenues are lower. I’m not calling for specific funding, or political action, or any particular solution. I don’t feel qualified to point at something and say, ‘this is what we should do.’ Wiser, more experienced voices than mine will handle that bit.

What I am calling for is awareness – awareness of the precarity of public transit, the diverse population it serves, and the reality that a city without transit is a city without equitable access to opportunity.

Here’s the thing: For drivers, transit is easy to ignore or dismiss. I’ve met drivers who have never taken a bus in their lives, and who claim they never would; they’d cab first. Transit is for ‘other people,’ people who aren’t like them, people they can’t possibly relate to. Why would anyone willingly use it if they have any choice?

I’ve also met drivers who do use it, here and there, but only to avoid parking fees or heavy traffic. For them, it’s a matter of convenience and penny-pinching, not a tool they rely on to get around. If it vanished tomorrow, they’d hardly notice.

But transit is not a nice-to-have. Transit is a lifeline ensuring that everyone can work, attend appointments, go to school and enjoy a rich social life in urban areas.

Transit is the service that, for me and most blind people I know, makes independent living possible. Its availability dictates where we work and live. Chances are, if a community doesn’t have adequate transit, blind people won’t stay for long.

I left my home town, my family, my support system and my local community, so I could build a life on my own terms. It is transit, more than anything else, that has given me that gift. If transit goes, then I will probably go, too.

So please, look up and pay attention to this story, even if you never take transit. Join the conversation, because your coworkers, your family members, your friends may lose jobs and even move away if they lose transit, even for a few months. Realize that in many cities, transit service was already in trouble, already undervalued, before a pandemic came along to make things worse.

This isn’t about one transit shutdown in one city, something you can shrug off and assume to be irrelevant if you don’t live here. This isn’t about fringe benefits or luxuries. This is about keeping people working and living on an equal footing with those who drive. It’s about protecting vulnerable groups, who are always the first to suffer when public services are cut. It’s about making sure everyone can contribute to society, right where they are, no matter their circumstances.

Those aren’t nice-to-haves. Those are must-havse.